News & Features

GOP Primary: Flathead County Sheriff

Jail crowding, drug epidemic take center stage in race for sheriff

Flathead County’s next sheriff will face a gamut of issues when he is sworn in next year, the most pressing among them being an overcrowded jail and a growing drug problem that has led to an increase in property crime across the valley.

Calvin Beringer, Brian Heino, Keith Stahlberg and Jordan White all believe they’re the right man for the job. The four candidates will face off in the June 5 Republican primary. Because there is no Democratic challenger, the winner of the primary will replace outgoing Sheriff Chuck Curry.

While the four candidates share similar stances on a handful of issues, particularly their desire to increase the sheriff’s office’s community outreach, they differ on experience and whether the county should build a new jail.

Beringer was raised on a farm near Kila, graduated from Flathead High School and was a police officer in the U.S. Army. He spent nearly 20 years as a deputy and later sergeant in the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington. Beringer later moved back to Montana and was a deputy and patrol commander at the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office for about 10 years. He was also briefly appointed Interim Director of the Office of Emergency Services by former sheriff and county commissioner Jim Dupont.

Heino is a Flathead native and has a degree in criminal justice. He spent three years as a police officer in Wyoming before returning to the Flathead Valley to work at the sheriff’s office for the last 15 years. Heino is currently a patrol commander, but in the past he has served as SWAT Team leader, Search and Rescue coordinator, a member of the Northwest Montana Drug Task Force, and a tactical flight officer with Two Bear Air.

Stahlberg graduated from Flathead High School in 1987 and worked for Anderson Masonry and at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company — where he was vice president of Steel Workers Local 320 — before getting into law enforcement in 2000. Stahlberg was a volunteer reserve deputy with the sheriff’s office and a supervisor at Alert Security until 2002. He briefly worked as an officer in the Columbia Falls Police Department before coming to the sheriff’s office full-time in 2003. Stahlberg was a corporal before being promoted to sergeant in 2012. He was also head of the reserve officer program from 2007 to 2011.

White has had a long career in emergency services. He was volunteer fire chief at the Ferndale Fire Department and an EMT in Bigfork in the late 1990s. He then served as a reserve deputy for the sheriff’s office in 1999 and 2000 before going to the Montana Highway Patrol and West Yellowstone Police Department. In 2002, White came to the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office where he served in a number of roles, including deputy, undersheriff, deputy coroner, and search and rescue coordinator. White left the sheriff’s office in 2012 to become executive director and CEO of Two Bear Air. Since 2014, he has owned and operated a security firm called Live Safer, Inc.

The four candidates came together for a debate on April 26 hosted by the Flathead County Sheriff’s Association. Deputies asked the candidates questions for 90 minutes before opening the session to questions from the public, covering everything from the drug epidemic to community outreach.

Jail

While the four candidates share similar positions on a number of issues, they are divided on the question of whether Flathead County should build a new jail. Last week, the Flathead County Commission looked at potential designs for a jail, either on the site of the current facility in Kalispell or on a new piece of land. Architects suggested the new jail would cost anywhere from $53 million to $73 million.

Heino and Stahlberg both believe a new jail is necessary and should be done sooner rather than later. Heino said he believes the county should stop dragging its feet and build a single-story jail on a new site in the next few years before land and construction prices get higher than they are now.

“If we don’t do it soon, we’ll just be setting ourselves up for failure,” Heino said.

Stahlberg said he believes the county will need a 400-bed jail within the next 50 years.

“We need to start planning and saving for that today,” Stahlberg said.

On the other side of the debate are Beringer and White. Beringer said he hasn’t seen enough evidence or data to support constructing a new jail. He thinks the fiscally responsible way of handling Flathead County’s overcrowded jail is partnering with nonprofit and religious groups to help people accused or convicted of crimes stay out of jail with therapy and training programs.

White said he believes that if the county builds a new jail it will only be at capacity during the busy summer months. Instead, White suggests building a less-expensive minimum-security facility so non-violent offenders can serve sentences and violent offenders can stay in the current jail.

“I think we should look at other options before pulling the trigger on such an expensive jail project,” White said.

Communications and Outreach

All four candidates have said they want to improve the sheriff department’s outreach efforts. Heino said if elected he would designate a media-relations professional and encourage deputies to get involved with local nonprofit and professional groups. Stahlberg said he would be a “working sheriff” and spend at least 10 hours a week on patrol so that he maintained a connection with the community. Stahlberg also wants to improve the radio communications system, which he said is out-of-date.

Beringer wants to maintain a citizens advisory board so he can respond to the needs of the community. White said he would get advice from different groups in the community, especially law enforcement officers from metropolitan areas who have retired to the Flathead and would have useful perspective on policing in a growing community. 

Drugs

All four candidates said drug use, especially the return of methamphetamine, is one of the biggest issues facing the county right now. All four men seemed to agree with White who said, “There is no single solution to this.”

Heino said he supports any efforts to increase treatment offerings in the valley and the establishment of a drug court, although he admitted that funding could be an issue. Beringer said he would focus investigations on the biggest dealers in the valley in an effort to slow the pace of drugs being brought into the area. Stahlberg said he would bring back a drug dog and work hard to make sure his deputies frequently visit local schools to encourage kids to avoid drugs before they start using.

School Safety

All four candidates said they supported getting more law enforcement officers into local schools to provide security. Heino and White want to work with school districts to hire more school resource officers. Beringer suggested getting retired law enforcement officers and veterans to volunteer for school security duties.

Staffing

All four candidates said the sheriff’s office is understaffed. Beringer is worried there is not enough money in the budget to hire additional deputies, but noted that one of his first projects would be to conduct a needs assessment to obtain hard numbers to provide to the community. White, Heino and Beringer said they had not decided on who would serve in their administration if elected, but Stahlberg said he would select Luke Foster to be his undersheriff.